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Rony Seikaly (I): “Playing music in Ibiza brought me back to my NBA days”

Former NBA player and current DJ-producer Rony Seikaly shares with TalkBasket his thoughts on the situation in Lebanon, racism, music and basketball for social change

Rony Seikaly is introduced to the crowd during the Miami Heat's first ever home game against the Los Angeles Clippers played November 5, 1988 at Miami Arena in Miami, Florida. Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Rony Seikaly is a busy man. The former NBA player, who always maintained a soft spot for music, has taken a place on the decks over the last twenty years, from the day he put an end to his basketball career.

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As a basketball star, DJ and businessman, Rony has enjoyed success in almost everything he set out to do. A longtime resident of Miami Beach, who loved the city at first sight, he had to change his schedule during the pandemic, but did not remain inert. Besides, he recently released a new EP on his label “Stride” named after his daughter Mila.

Apart from spending working hours in his studio, Rony also started a fundraising campaign for Beirut. The capital of Lebanon, where Seikaly was born in 1965, has been suffering from the aftermath of an explosion, which led to over 150 deaths, 7,000 injuries, $10 to $15 billion in damage and left an estimated 300,000 people homeless. Seikaly, who has contributed with $100,000, partnered with the NGO SEAL, a nonprofit organization founded in New York City by a group of Lebanese-Americans to take action against severe social and economic problems facing post-war Lebanon underserved communities. All funds raised by the campaign will be directed to shelter, food, medical support and rehabilitation in Beirut. The initial aim was to gather $1 million, but later the bar was set lower, at $600,000.

Rony was born in Beirut, but as an eleven-year-old child he had to move to Greece with his family because of the Civil War in which the country was immersed. At the age of 16, while attending the American School of Athens (ACS), he entered a shop owned by Panathinaikos BC great Takis Koroneos, who brought the young Lebanese to the attention of the Greek team. With the passage of time, Rony’s virtues on the court became apparent.

During a trip to the United States, he went in for a tryout at Syracuse University and ended up pursuing a professional career at the highest level on a sports scholarship. His future was in college and the NBA, despite different voices arguing that he stood no chance of making it in the NCAA. When all was said and done, Seikaly’s stint with Syracuse left an indelible mark. Before becoming a pro, he was a World Champion as a member of the United States NT in 1986.

Upon graduation, he had climbed to the first place in rebounds, second in blocks and fourth in total points in college history. At a time when not many international prospects triumphed in the States, Rony Seikaly saw the Miami Heat select him with the ninth pick of the 1988 NBA Draft. He was the first player in the history of both Lebanon and Greece to ever play in the league, in addition to being the first college draft pick of the Miami Heat. If history proved to be on Rony’s side, the same cannot be said about the injuries he had to endure throughout his career, especially in the final years of it.

In Miami, Seikaly found the perfect lifestyle and a team eager to give him the chance to flourish. From 1988 to 1994, he turned into a franchise player for a struggling team which had to wait until 1992 to clinch a playoff berth. In the meanwhile, Rony had already established himself as one of the dominant big men in the league, averaging steadily over 15 points and 10 rebounds per game.

On June 28, 1988 the Miami Heat made the first pick in team history, selecting Rony Seikaly with the 9th pick in the NBA Draft. Seikaly averaged a double-double in five of his six years with the team and won the 1990 Most Improved Player award. Photo Source: Miami Heat Instagram Page

In 1994, he was traded to the Golden State Warriors, an injury-plagued team at the time. His two years in Oakland were probably the worst he spent in any franchise during his prime in the NBA. Luckily, the Orlando Magic needed a starting center to replace Shaquille O’Neal and add more experience to a squad featuring veteran scorers such as Horace Grant, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott. Despite turning in some of his best performances, Seikaly could not lead the 1995 finalists to the second round of the playoffs in 1997.

The NBA Most Improved Player Award winner in 1990 was once again traded amidst the season, this time to the New Jersey Nets. It was all downhill from there. A total 18 games played over two NBA campaigns was the result of a serious injury that Rony received playing for Orlando in 1998. The 6’10” center exited the league in 1999, holding career averages of 14.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game. After taking a one-year hiatus, he returned to the basketball courts in 2000 for FC Barcelona, where he had a tumultuous relationship with coach Aito Garcia Reneses. This chapter of his career is analyzed in detail in the third part of his interview with TalkBasket.

In spite of his achievements in basketball, Seikaly has always had a flair and a passion for music. In all the cities where he lived during his time as a player, he had a music studio, where he created electronic themes. His love was Deep House and since he was a student in Athens, he knew that sooner or later spinning records and entertaining people with his tunes would be his future. Right after his retirement, Rony began to perform as a DJ, travelling to different parts of the world and gradually becoming a household (pun intended) name in another domain. At the same time, he broke into the real estate business as investor and developer.

Now, the 55-year-old recounts some memorable episodes and moments to TalkBasket.net. In the first part of our multi-faceted discussion, the retired player talks about his initiative to help Beirut stand on its feet, the political situation in his hometown, the recent NBA boycott and the way he experienced being on the court and on the decks for the most part of his life.

Q: How has the COVID pandemic affected you as a person and as a professional?

A: I’m tired, just like anybody else, of this situation. I’m hoping that we can get out of it soon. The first few months were good, since I got the time to sit back and do other things. It’s the first time that I couldn’t go to Greece in the summer, in 40 years. My sister has a house in Mykonos. Sometimes, I base myself in Mykonos and travel to other places from there. I miss having my life back.

Q: To what extent has it changed the entertainment industry, including music and sports?

A: The people that want to make money and live their life have been mostly affected. Others had the chance to sit out and be creative. The majority of the people have suffered, especially club owners.

Q: A month ago, you initiated a fundraiser to relief efforts in Lebanon. What’s the situation in Beirut right now?

A: The situation is terrible. My parents almost died, our houses are gone and there’s 300,000 people basically homeless. The government hasn’t done anything to help anybody. They’ve been in power for forty years. They run the country as if it were theirs. If the people in power shared a little bit of the aid they received from Europe instead of stealing the money that comes in, things would have been different. The government doesn’t want to step aside and let people who want to work for the country do their job. Right now, if I wanted to go to Lebanon, it’s difficult to do it because of travel restrictions. Of course, I don’t have a problem with anyone in the country.

Q: Are you satisfied with the response to the campaign until now?

A: Of course. I set a hard goal of $1,000,000 and right now we’re close to $550,000. I initially wanted to raise $ 500,000 but raising money is very difficult, especially since the country is very corrupt. It was a long shot, but until now about 800 people have donated money. It’s a wide range of very generous people that have nothing to do with Lebanon. We’re working with a group that makes sure that whatever is needed will go to the right persons.

Q: When will the funds be distributed to the NGOs? Is there a time limit for donations?

A: I left it open for people to donate in order to get as much as we can. I know many are suffering and it’s our duty to help. The main NGO that’s going to get the money in Beirut is in New York City. They have their own people in Beirut.

Q: Growing up in Lebanon during the Civil War, you had to deal with shooting, rockets and bombs exploding. How did that experience shape your personality?

A: This last bomb that destroyed our houses and almost killed my parents brought back memories of me growing up in the country. I almost died a few times in Lebanon during the Civil War. We used to go to Beirut with my family during the summer. If it hadn’t been for COVID, we would have been there this summer too. The bomb exploded less than a kilometer from my house and we could have been greatly injured. So, it hit home for me because it brought back ugly memories from the Civil War and the fighting. The unfortunate thing is that the same people who were in power then, are there now. We’re still stuck where we were forty years ago.

Q: What’s your view of the NBA temporary boycott and players asking for social justice? Do you think that the situation calls for radical action to take place?

A: This happened in the 60s, when athletes like Arthur Ashe, Kareem Abdul – Jabbar and Muhammad Ali stood up for equality. The players have done a great job of getting together, making sure that we don’t get stuck again for the next forty years. It’s time for people to be accepted, no matter what color skin they have. There are always mistakes and bad people in any situation. Some policemen are bad and racist, some are not. We just have to make sure that inequality stops. Being scared of getting stopped by the police is not fair to any human being.

Q: Do you think that basketball can promote changes that politics has been unable or unwilling to?

A: Absolutely. Sports and entertainment is always important in making sure that problems don’t come back again.

Q: Were you ever subjected to racism because of your origin? Do you have any stories to share?

A: Of course I was. Racism had always been thrown upon me throughout my NBA career, but that comes with the territory of not being a white or a black person. It’s an ugly and harsh reality that you have to deal with. I’ve had racial comments against me, like being called a terrorist, a camel jockey and anything you could ever imagine. I was a minority as a white guy playing in a black-dominated sport and also as a white guy. I’ve had it both ways.

Photo Source: Rony Seikaly Instagram Page

Q: How would you introduce/describe Rony the NBA player and Rony the DJ to those that don’t know you in either capacity?

A: It’s two different worlds. I’ve loved music since my days in Greece. I always had a club in my house and would play music for my friends, even for kids from other schools who were visiting Athens. I would charge them one-two dollars, so that I could buy a better sound system and put more lights. For me, sports and music went always hand in hand. Music was part of my life as an athlete. When I retired, I didn’t want the music side to be a public side because I play music for myself and my friends. I never wanted to be in the public eye for it. It took off on its own.

Music and sports are completely different polar opposites. Had I gone to music first, I would never have been an NBA player. However, the pressure of playing basketball has absolutely nothing to do with playing music in front of 5,000 people. In sports, you’d better deliver every night. There’s no choice of having a bad night, whereas in music you don’t have a press table criticizing every shot, rebound or play you make. In music, it depends on your feeling and what you think people are going to enjoy.

Q: For which of your accomplishments as an athlete and DJ do you pride yourself the most?

A: Playing at the highest level is an accomplishment itself. I’ll never forget the day I played against the Celtics and I saw Larry Bird and other players that I used to watch as a little kid. That was amazing. Before I became a DJ, I used to go to clubs in Ibiza and marvel at 5,000 people dancing. To come back and play music there brought me back to the days of playing in the Madison Square Garden, the Boston Garden or against Michael Jordan. That’s a blessing. Not a lot of people have the chance of accomplishing their dream.

Q: From your experience, which have been the most striking shifts in the way people enjoy (house) music in clubs and arenas over the last twenty years?

A: Over the last twenty years, house music has been fragmented to many different styles. Back then, if you played house you would satisfy a lot of people. Today, there are so many different genres within house music that people who are into minimal or techno won’t like the style.

Q: If “sports is love, music is passion” as you’ve said, one would think that after your career was over, you would become a coach, a manager, a GM or even an owner of a basketball team. Did the thought ever cross your mind?

A: Being an owner, yes. I loved playing the game and the actual competitiveness, but I don’t like anything else about it. Managing players and egos is not something I enjoy. As an owner, I would just be an investor, like a business transaction. I wouldn’t be on the hot seat again. For me, running a team day-to-day is not what I want to do.

Q: Former Miami guard Carlos Arroyo has taken a similar path as you, transitioning from basketball to music. He actually still lives in Miami. What piece of advice would you give to other ex-players who are aspiring DJs?

A: The most important advice I’d give them is “Be yourself”. If you copy somebody else, you won’t be anything. You have to be different and to play music that speaks to you. If it resonates with the people listening, that would be your style and people are going to start talking about you.

Dont’ miss out on the second part of the Rony Seikaly interview with TalkBasket, where the former Miami Heat star makes some bold comparisons between players of different generations.

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